The Complexity Behind That Women-Focused Moment In Avengers: Endgame
In a three-hour movie filled with weighty moments, one in particular seems to have sparked a debate that perfectly mirrors its actual complexity.
Whatever your thoughts on the notion of giant comic book movies, we can all agree that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has, thus far, centred on male characters. Twenty two movies and a full decade in, this is not up for debate. It’s a demonstrable fact. Yes, there has been a relatively small number of women as supporting characters in the franchise since its inception in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2018’s Ant-Man And The Wasp and 2019’s Captain Marvel that any woman character was afforded a role equal in standing to that of the male superheroes in the MCU. That is the difficult context in which this moment in Avengers: Endgame happened.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
It’s the third act of the movie. The home stretch. It’s all kicked off at Avengers HQ and, thanks to the events of Avengers: Infinity War, the already relatively small number of women characters is even further reduced. So far, we’ve really only seen Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Nebula, and (briefly) Pepper Potts in action, with Gamora, Valkyrie, and Agent Carter having also appeared fleetingly in their own specific circumstances. But, make no mistake — at this point only Captain Marvel, Black Widow, and Nebula have had any quantifiable impact on the plot. It has all centred very heavily — as usual — on Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawk-Eye, and Ant-Man.
But, suddenly, the tables are turned, and the Snap Of Thanos is successfully undone. All of the franchise characters — lead and supporting — arrive on what is now a giant battlefield. They assemble to fight the villain and his growing army. They are trying to get the gauntlet containing the Infinity Stones away from him, to prevent him from wreaking deadly havoc in time and space once again. At a particular point, after Spider-Man has tried, it falls to Captain Marvel to take the gauntlet across the field and through Thanos’ growing army. Surely she can’t do it alone!
“Don’t worry,” says Scarlet Witch as she appears beside her. “She’s got help,” says Okoye (Danai Gurira) as she too arrives. Captain Marvel is then surrounded by all the women heroes from the past decade of films. The Wasp lands in front of the group and gives Captain Marvel a nod. Pepper Potts lands in her very own Stark Tech suit. Valkyrie joins the line on her magnificent winged horse. Scarlet Witch, Gamora, Shuri, and Mantis all stand alongside their fellow women, ready to assist. It is their first time together in the same frame. Pausing for a second to allow the sight to sink in, the women move forward as a group, escorting Captain Marvel and fighting their way through.
That’s the moment that has drawn discussion and, while it is easy to dismiss that discussion as being the product of sexism, it is really not that simple.
Notably, this moment has come under fire from some quarters as being an ‘unearned’ moment that has been shoe-horned in to ‘pander’ to those who have long complained about the way this franchise deals with women. On the one hand, the ‘unearned’ and ‘pandering’ accusation sounds like the usual whining of Internet Misogynists, who prefer their action movies unsullied by women being undeniably capable and excellent.
But, on the other hand, it could actually be considered a valid criticism - because the franchise has wilfully sidelined almost all of these women for years but now, but suddenly they are all assembled for a group shot in the third act of a phase-ending movie. In addition, Captain Marvel is supposed to be strong enough to break a large spaceship in half — why would she need any help at all? And another thing — she showed up at the start of the film, then ducked out for another pressing engagement somewhere else in the universe. But, she just strolls back in at the end to save the day?
This is why it is a complex moment. Captain Marvel bookends the action. She appears at the beginning to unite the remaining Avengers and motivate them to try, and her return at the end highlights just how dire the situation is — that she had to return from across the stars. It also serves to indicate what is essentially a ‘passing of the torch.’ She needs help in this moment because they are dealing with Infinity Stones, which are the most powerful things in the universe. As we see later, even she cannot withstand the use of the Power Stone. It also makes sense that it is Okoye announcing that “she has help”, because Okoye is the leader of the Wakandan protective force, the Dora Milaje — of course it would be her that leads the women in protecting Captain Marvel.
As a sequence, it calls back to a much smaller “She’s not alone” assembly of women in Avengers: Infinity War, and serves to remind us that women do things differently. We’ve just spent a decade watching movies about white men being leaders, and arguing amongst each other about which of them is leader of the leaders, and fighting about whether they should let outside leaders lead them, or keep leading themselves. But, here are the women heroes as a more inclusive, egalitarian unit, standing together in solidarity to get one of their number through a battlefield.
Even with those narrative explanations, though, this moment can feel a little as though Marvel Studios is saying, “Look! We do have women in our franchise — here they all are together!” But, if we look deeper, we find it’s not as straightforward as all that. The route taken by the Marvel Cinematic Universe — from 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame — is the route it is because of the choices made by those in charge, behind the scenes. The route of this movie franchise differs from the comic book series it draws upon in that it purposefully sidelines and often excludes women characters in favour of men. That’s why we first met founding Avenger The Wasp in 2015, as opposed to right at the beginning as we should have done.
One of the most influential of those in charge was, until 2015, Ike Perlmutter. Longstanding Marvel C.E.O Perlmutter once rescued Marvel from bankruptcy by merging it with his toy company, Toy Biz Inc, but when the company moved toward making its own movies, he was renowned for having an outdated idea of what audiences wanted to see, and therefore, what would be most profitable. It is surely no coincidence that a wholesale change of direction began to happen in the franchise shortly before Perlmutter was sidelined during a post-Disney buy-out corporate restructuring effort. While every MCU film until that point had centred on a white man, and been written and directed almost exclusively by white men, Marvel suddenly announced Captain Marvel and Black Panther in 2014 (four and five years ahead of their release), and Perlmutter was gone from the movie side of Marvel’s business less than a year later.
In hindsight, this period of transition — from 2014 to 2018 — is quite clear in the franchise’s history. Looking at the films in order of release, we can see a purposeful effort to increase inclusiveness in the series — in front of and behind the camera — throughout this specific time period. Post-Perlmutter, we’ve seen Marvel films from Taika Watiti, Ryan Coogler, and Anna Boden (with Ryan Fleck), for example, as well as the first films to feature a woman character in the title.
We’ve also seen a marked increase in the number of people of colour onscreen within the franchise, and instances of the series specifically contradicting three of Perlmutter’s most infamous arguments: that audiences wouldn’t like movies with a woman villain (step forward, Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man And The Wasp), that woman-led movies aren’t profitable (that’s $1 billion and counting for Captain Marvel, thanks) and that people wouldn’t buy toys of woman characters (hello, Endgame Black Widow figurines).
This is not to say that Ike Perlmutter was ever the sole source of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s problematic nature, nor indeed that the franchise is magically no longer problematic now that he has stepped aside from the Marvel movies. This series is still making narrative and character choices that are sexist and racist — including in Avengers: Endgame. But, after a decade of centring white patriarchy, very small movements in an inclusive direction are now visible, where once they were nowhere to be seen — and that’s what this woman-focused moment is all about.
We have been told by the studio and those involved in its production, over and over again, that Avengers: Endgame marks the end of an era. Media and fans have been understandably focused on that ending era being the swansong of particular franchise-founding characters, as well as the conclusion of the long-running Thanos/Infinity Stones storyline. Both these things are true, but this woman-focused Endgame moment is surely included in the movie to reassure us that the era of white male domination of the franchise is also ending. The optimistic view of this complex moment is therefore that it is a glimpse of the future — a future filled with awesome women on the big screen, each playing a significant part in one of the most influential pop culture phenomena of the 21st century.
Now all the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to do is finally live up to that promise. Better late then never? We’ll see.